Recently I shared the story of an Australian teacher who was being discriminated against in their work due to their disability. They are quite deaf, and despite this have been working brilliantly as a teacher. You can read their story here.
So I got curious.
How many teachers in Australia have a disability?
And how are those disabilities being accommodated for within our profession?
Let’s take a dive.
Australians with a Disability
Overall, 18% of the Australian population have a disability. This translates to 4.4 million people. The following graph breaks down the prevalence of disability by age group and sex.
One thing is for certain: the proportion of people in Australia with a disability is increasing, especially as the population ages. We are also improving diagnostic technology and processes, and the taboo/stigma around disabilities is every so slowly lifting, which means we should be catching disabilities which previously may have gone undiagnosed.
According to the People With Disability report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (last updated in Oct 2020):
For about 3 in 4 (77%) people with disability, their main form of disability (that is, their main condition or the one causing the most problems) is physical. This includes diseases of the:
- musculoskeletal system and connective tissue (30%), such as back problems and arthritis
- ear and mastoid process (8.4%), such as hearing loss and tinnitus
- circulatory system (6.3%), such as heart disease and stroke
- nervous system (6.7%), such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis (ABS 2019b).
For the remaining 1 in 4 (23%), their main form of disability is mental or behavioural, including:
- intellectual and developmental (6.5%), such as intellectual disability and autism
- mood affective (3.8%), such as depression
- dementia and Alzheimer disease (2.6%) (ABS 2019a, 2019b).
In terms of work participation, about 53% of people with a disability are active in the workforce, but this varies by age. I’d also be curious to know what proportion of this statistic have actually informed their employer about their disability.
People with a disability, especially an ‘invisible’ disability, may choose not to disclose that information to their employer, and this includes the HR departments of teachers.
According to the OECD, the average age of teachers in Australia is 42, with 30% of teachers above that age group. So it stands to reason that a small proportion of teachers will be teaching with their disability.
The Australian Teacher Workforce Data
The National Teacher Workforce Characteristics Report, published in December 2021, is the closest I could get to statistics looking at teachers specifically. This collection of data seems a bit haphazard:
The following key findings are drawn from the first wave of the ATWD undertaken in 2018. This data was obtained through linkage of workforce data from the ATWD Teacher Survey (n = 17,729) and state and territory regulatory authority data, with initial teacher education data from the Higher Education Student Data Collection (HESDC) for teachers registered in South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales. For 2018, workforce data from the Victorian regulatory authority only was linked to the ITE data.
According to their findings, the proportion of teachers who identify as having a disability was 6% (back in 2018). This is lower than the (at the time) 9% of employed Australians who reported having a disability.
In 2021, there were 303,539 full-time equivalent teaching staff in Australian schools. If we go by the statistic of 6%, this means that there were about 18, 212 teachers with a disability at that time.
It would be interesting to delve into the reasons behind this statistic – are people with disabilities not becoming teachers at a proportionate rate because of a specific reason, or are they in fact joining the teaching workforce at a proportional rate but are not reporting their disabilities to the department? My guess it a bit of both.
Below we can see the data further broken down into the age group of students taught. 4% of early childhood teachers, 5% of primary teachers, and 7% of secondary teachers identified through the study as having a disability.
It appears that the proportion of early career teachers identifying with a disability is in line with the rest of the teacher workforce.
I wonder if this proportion will increase as time goes by, and the stigmas around disability are decreased even more. The greater proportion of the workforce who openly discuss their disability, the more pressure on our leaders and our systems to be actively supportive. This, in turn, will encourage more people to self-identify with their respective registration bodies, and again in turn encourage more to enter the teaching profession.
Within early childhood services, leaders were ever so slightly more likely to self-identify, compared to early childhood teachers who had leadership responsibilities (5.6% vs 5.1%). This group was higher than early childhood classroom teachers, where only 3.2% self-identified as having a disability.
In primary and high schools, teachers with leadership responsibilities were the highest group at 6.6%, followed by classroom teachers at 6.1%, and then leaders at 5.7%.
Within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander proportion of the teaching workforce, a disproportionate amount self-identified as having a disability. Overall, 11% of this group self-identified.
Now, the nature of these disabilities varies quite a bit. 6% of teachers who identified as having a disability were for vision; 14% for hearing; 23% for mobility; 49% for medical; and 24% for ‘other’.
I wonder what proportion of these disabilities are ‘invisible’. Invisible disabilities are those that are not readily noticeable, and are often met with dismissal due to their nature. People with invisible disabilities can become quite adept at hiding it in order to reduce judgement by others.
Did you know there’s a Staffroom Stories podcast? You can check out the website directly here, find transcripts and show notes here, and subscribe through Google Podcasts, the Podbean App, Amazon Music/Audible, Samsung, and Podchaser. I’ll update when it’s approved for Spotify and Apple! The trailer is live now, and our first episode goes live Tues 17th May, so keep an eye out!
Discrimination and Harassment
This graph highlights the percent of Australian Public Service employees who have experienced discrimination or harassment/bullying. Note that the rate for discrimination/harassment/bullying of people with disabilities is about double that of people identifying with no disability.
I could not find any data specific to the teaching profession. I am unwilling to guess whether the proportion of reported discrimination or harassment/bullying would be higher or lower than the apparent average for APS employees.
This information is likely skewed, as many people (and especially those with a disability) will not report their experiences.
Even though it is against the law to discriminate, there is always that niggling doubt in the back of your mind as to the repercussions of reporting discrimination, harassment, or bullying in the workplace. Particularly when it’s instigated by someone at a higher power level than you. Just look at what’s been happening in parliament.
And this is a problem.
When employees do not feel safe in their work as a direct result of discrimination, harassment or bullying, they need to at least feel safe to report these things. And when these things are reported, the employees need to feel safe and assured that they will be taken seriously, and that the appropriate actions are taken.
Unfortunately, that feeling of safety is just not there.
The Queensland Government’s Able Workforce Strategy states “Almost 1 in 5 Australians (18.3%) report living with disability; it is estimated that only 1 in 25 departmental employees (4.4%) identify as having a diverse ability.”.
One group I reached out to responded in time for this article: according to the Queensland College of Teachers, who are the QLD Teacher registration body, 507 teachers registered as having a disability since they started capturing such data back in 2012.
The Queensland Government recently released a report titled Queensland public sector inclusion and diversity strategy 2021-2025. Within it they discuss the strategic focus of the QLD Gov to increase diversity. They note that “diversity targets are progressing steadily in the right direction, with exception to employment of people with disability which has decreased.” This data is for all QLD public servants, not just for teachers, and does not include private sector education.
The report does not investigate reasons why this decline is happening.
Of course we all know it is against the law to discriminate against a person because of their disability, and that certainly includes within the workplace.
Specifically, from the Human Rights Commission:
Disability discrimination occurs when a person is treated less favourably, or not given the same opportunities as others in a similar situation, because of their disability. It can also occur when an unreasonable rule or policy is the same for everyone but has an unfair effect on people with a particular disability.
Employers have a legal obligation to remove barriers that people with disabilities may face at work. Making these changes is known as ‘reasonable adjustments’. A failure to make reasonable adjustments may be discrimination.
Under this ruling, the treatment our teacher friend experienced is actual discrimination.
The Australian Government has also recently switched gears into a more targeted strategy for attracting and retaining public servants with a disability. The Australian Public Service Disability Employment Strategy 2020–25 aims to be a foundation for building an inclusive and diverse Australian Public Service through attracting, recruiting, and retaining more people with disabilities, as well as ensuring accessible and inclusive workplace cultures and environments.
I take this to include the public sector educational systems, but there is no specific mention of individual governmental arenas.
As part of this Strategy, I am particularly interested in seeing work within the Education Departments in each state focus on Focus area 2: Accessible and inclusive workplace cultures and environments. The desired outcome is to “develop workplace cultures and environments that remove barriers to performance and support career development for all employees, including people with disability.”
The key areas for improvement are inclusive culture and accessibility. It will involve changing the attitudes and mindset of our workforce and changing the way we work and engage with each other. APS employees with disability must be central to, and consulted on, these actions.
Within this are a number of Action points that I believe schools could really benefit from leaning in to. I feel like we do these brilliantly (for the most part) with our students, and now it’s time to turn our attention to our teachers by actioning these:
- Action 4: Agencies to provide disability awareness and capability uplift for managers and senior leaders.
- Action 5: Agencies to implement the disability liaison officer model to support employees with disability.
- Action 6: Improve disability awareness and confidence to create an inclusive culture.
- Action 7: Agencies to review business practices to include workplace adjustments and to embed conversations about workplace adjustments into all stages of the employee lifecycle.
- Action 8: Ensure employees with disability are supported and encouraged to take up mobility and career development opportunities.
If You Are Being Discriminated Against
Document, document, document
Write down every instance of discrimination. This should include date, time, persons involved, and the context. Keep the information factual and not emotional. BUT, you also need to include the impact it has on your mental health.
Write down every instance where you have attempted to have the situation rectified. Include notes of conversations you’ve had, proposed solutions provided to you, and the actual outcomes.
Talk to your higher ups
Your first port of call should be your line manager. If they are unhelpful (or are the one discriminating), go a step up to your principal.
If you think it would be beneficial, have a trusted colleague with you as a support person and to help you take notes about the discussions.
If this is proving fruitless, your next step could either be HR or your union. Your personal preference and the context of the situation will dictate which direction you go here.
Make sure you make records of each conversation. If they happen in person or on the phone, send a follow-up email with what was discussed – this will act as a paper trail for you. If you are uncomfortable sending an email, send it to yourself – it is a more reliable time-stamp than a date in a Word document.
Contact the Human Rights Commission
The following information was copied from the Qld Gov page Your Rights at Work.
The Australian Human Rights Commission investigates and resolves complaints about discrimination at work. It can help you if you have been:
- refused a job
- dismissed from a job
- refused a promotion, transfer or other benefit associated with employment
- given unfair terms or conditions of employment
- refused training opportunities
- refused flexible work arrangements
- harassed or bullied
and you believe this has happened because of your disability, sex, age, sexual preference, religion, criminal record, trade union activity or political opinion.
I would contact the Human Rights Commission after you have exhausted the above ‘higher up’ options, or if you feel that the degree of your discrimination is so severe it warrants bypassing those agents.
Do you have an experience about teaching with a disability that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below, or by joining the conversation over in The Teacher Community on Facebook.